Disagreeing with Officials

Here’s a rather lighter issue than the recent posts, suitable for (some of our) weekend activities, an interesting epistemic issue in ordinary life: cases in which one disagrees with sports officials. I’ll use a baseball example, one where the umpire calls a player out at home, and you’re livid since the guy was obviously safe.

Here’s the facts relevant to the epistemic assessment of your opinion. First, you’re not entitled to think that you’re in a better position to observe the play than the umpire–there’s a reason they put them on the field, close to the action. Second, you’re probably not entitled to think that your eyesight is better than theirs. There will be special cases where you are entitled to this opinion, but not in the most common case. Third, you’re clearly not entitled to the opinion that you are better trained to observe such situations accurately, since the officials have had years of training before being hired for their jobs. Last, you also know that umpires make mistakes, and you know that you make mistakes.

Now, suppose you know all of these things to be true. You still hold that the guy was obviously safe. And I suppose you think your belief is rational, too. How can that be?


Disagreeing with Officials — 10 Comments

  1. Jon,
    In the set up, you say ‘he’s obviously safe’. Do you mean you believe he’s obviously safe, or he’s obviously safe?
    Also, have you ruled out the possibility that the ump’s a MORON! He’s BLIND! His mom was HELEN KELLER! Hey, SLEEPING BEAUTY, WAKE UP!

  2. Yes, Robert, you’ve got just exactly the right state of mind for this issue!

    When I say he’s obviously safe, that’s a literary device, representing your point of view on the matter.

  3. Hi, Blar, good to have you here! I was expecting this suggestion to surface sooner or later, but I don’t see how it can help. Let’s suppose you’re granting that it can’t be rational for you to disagree with the official. Presumably, that’s the same for the entire crowd as well. So now you have an entire stadium of people, none of whose disagreement is rational, and yet somehow, if you add up enough less-than-rational beliefs, they can support the rationality of your own disagreement. That doesn’t sound plausible at all. If everybody disagrees with the official, but fails to be rational in so doing, why should their agreement with you count at all?

    Maybe the solution is to introduce likelihoods here: what’s the likelihood of all of them agreeing with you, given that the guy was safe versus the likelihood of all them agreeing with you, given that the guy was out. That is, which hypothesis better explains the evidence here. And maybe the likelihoods here favor your point of view over the ump’s. (There’s still a problem of bootstrapping here, since the entire crowd has to form an opinion prior to learning this evidence in favor of the view, which means the crowd has to display some irrationality on the road to rationality.)

    I’m afraid this test doesn’t help much either, though. When you use slow-motion replays of cases where the crowd thinks that ump made a mistake, most of the time the crowd is wrong. (This latter remark is somewhat of a guess, but I’m pretty sure it’s right in my own experience of disagreeing with officials.)

  4. The likelihood-based explanation does not necessarily have to pass through irrationality on the way to rationality if we consider the initial voicing of disapproval to indicate doubt in the ump, rather than full-fledged belief that the ump has made an error. If the crowd shows agreement, then most fans quickly form a belief and increase their volume, but if there isn’t audible agreement then the people who did doubt the call quickly quiet down and accept that the ump may have been right. This belief-creating mechanism suffers from the problem of the silent majority. However, it has the convenient advantage of implying that it is always correct to trust the ump when he appears to make a bad call in favor of your team, since the crowd does not respond vocally to these errors.

    If you’re right about your empirical claim, though, then there’s no way that you could be rational in forming a belief contrary to the official call. Expressing disapproval with the umpire could still be practically rational from a means-ends point of view, though, if it is something like an attempt to influence the officials to favor your team or a way of enjoying the game more rather than an expression of a belief.

  5. I agree that if you simply voice doubt, then it doesn’t look as bad from the standpoint of irrationality. But, if you’re like me and most other people, you’re not voicing doubts–you think the guy’s BLIND! But you’re right as well that this could be rational from the practical point of view, even if it’s hard to justify from an epistemic point of view…

  6. Isn’t there a pretty straightforward justification to give here? I, after all, have an enormous inductive base cataloguing the many times the guys in blue have blown such obvious calls. Please don’t bring up the rather larger number of times they have got it right in the past. Nothing much was hanging on *those* calls, whereas a lot was turning on the blown calls in the past. So, since something important was obviously hanging on this call–otherwise I wouldn’t be so mad, right?–we have total evidence considerations which push us toward the relevant data set of blown as opposed to made calls. Once there, it is an easy bit of induction.

    Or we might try an abductive move: what’s the best explanation for both my anger and the ump’s call? Well, that he’s completely blind (or maybe that there is some sort of conspiracy). After all, that’s why I am so miffed: HE’s in a great position to make the RIGHT call, I’m in a comparatively LOUSY position, and even I can see the guy was safe.

  7. Anthony, that would work, I think, if the inductive base were “clean”, but it isn’t. You have to be selective in your use of your inductive base to think that when you disagree with the ump, you’re right most of the time. This isn’t an appeal to how often they are right; it’s an appeal to how often they are right when you disagree with them. That’s what slow-motion replays tend to show, I think. But even without that evidence, it’s what you should expect: they are in a better position to observe than you are, and they’ve been trained and you haven’t. And you know all this.

    On the abductive move, I think there’s an even better explanation: you have something at stake, and tend to misperceive when that’s the case!

  8. Jon, that is, of course, right. (Failed attempt at humor in the previous post….)

    Seriously, though, I suspect that it is probably worth pressing a little on some of the facts of the case. In the set-up, it is stipulated that we aren’t entitled to think we are in a better position than is the ump. Yeah, the ump’s on the field and I’m at home, but that alone isn’t enough to make me not entitled to thinking I’m in a better position than he is (or at least in as good a position): I have the benefit of a camera positioned behind the plate, elevated above the action; he’s likely blocked in part by the catcher; my visual field has other relvant information that his lacks–I can see the ball coming in from the outfield and the runner advancing all at once; etc. (Not to mention that his white cane and dark glasses might get in the way.) The case is actually even better for strikezone issues: camera views tend to be much better than the umps’ position affords him (he is forced to be behind the plate by several feet and off to one side or the other. But when we tell enough of the story to make it really salient that I in fact think my position is no better (or maybe even definitely worse) than the ump’s, ruling out all of the ways in which my view of things at home might be better than the ump’s, then I admit that I start losing the force of the pull toward thinking that my belief that the guy was safe–in the face of the disagreement with the ump–really is a reasonable thing to believe.

    Similar pressing on the other facts also seems possible. (The point is that our inuitions about the rationality of the belief might not be particularly stable.) People tend to radically over-estimate their own abilities at X (e.g., driving safely, eyesight) , even when staring facts about how poorly people–even themselves–do at X. So even though when we read your set-up, we get that we know that we don’t have better eyesight, or that umps are generically more reliable than fans, etc., those facts might be hard for us to really internalize (“Sure, umps are more reliable than the AVERAGE fan, but I am no average fan…”). And so when I report that the belief that the guy is safe is rational, this judgment really isn’t that it is a rational belief EVEN IN VIEW OF the knowledge of my limitations and the ump’s comparatively better access to the facts, but that it is rational (in part) because I don’t think those limitations apply to me. Again, like the case above, we can cash out the story to rule this out by, e.g., making me hold all the beliefs in working memory at once or something. But then the belief that the guy is safe looks pretty bad.

    For what it is worth, when I watch baseball in the stands I find myself doing a lot more deferring than I do when at home (‘though, of course, that doesn’t prevent the ‘booing’ of the officials).

  9. Gosh, thony, I had no idea you were joking; it never occurred to me! I should’ve known better…

    And, dangitall, it *has* to be rational to think the guy’s blind! At least sometimes…

    I like your point about selective attention to evidence; it makes self-confidence so much easier to maintain!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *